World history has been dominated by trade wars and military interventions to resolve trade conflicts. From the 15th through the 19th centuries, shipping merchants became wealthy competing for trade routes and exploiting price differences between nations’ captive markets. Wealthier nations financed mercantilism to increase their gold coffers at the expense of other nations that lacked merchant ships and navies to protect them.
In the 19th century, those nations of Europe and America that had accumulated wealth through mercantilism, now invested in the transformative industrial innovations of their time. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the industrial revolution compounded the wealth of these nations, and advanced the theoretically achievable wealth of the entire world. However, a concentration of industrial strength by relatively few countries led to export surpluses that drove countries to compete for trade routes, and that eventually caused an eruption of war.
In the 20th century, technology advances supported worldwide business capability, yet wars, government corruption, and misguided trade barriers dissuaded businesses from expanding to other countries. But the wars did temporarily thrust underground the notion that trade differences should be settled through bloodshed. Nonetheless, the United States pursued military dominance. As the 20th century ended, the U.S. emerged the sole superpower, creating a unique opportunity. For the first time in history, the entire world could peacefully pursue economic parity.
The world responded by leveraging wage imbalances between the world’s rich and poor nations. Entire civilizations altered age-old governance systems so their people could participate in world wealth redistribution. China created a capitalistic engine to support its socialist goals as the center of the ASEAN economy. India reduced the pressures of its caste system to benefit from newfound prosperity. And we are witnessing today the Middle East standing up to dictatorships that have shielded their people from participating in the world’s economy
Europe’s and America’s businesses reacted by aggressively expanding into global markets through direct foreign investments of multinational corporations (MNCs). Their expansion resulted in the transfer of both wealth and jobs to other countries, and created a formidable force that wounded America. As we face down this force, America should be asking the following questions 1) through our military support of world stability, did we better America’s future?, 2) can we simultaneously innovate to advance our nation’s wealth frontier while supporting the rise of the rest of the world? And 3) have we determined an economic path forward that will protect the world from a reemergence of military struggles? The answer to these questions will depend on the ability of United States to develop a coherent policy regarding MNCs.